Introducing the 2018 optiMize Fellows Cohort!

Introducing our Sixth Fellows Cohort!

In October, we received 210 project submissions for the sixth annual optiMize Social Innovation Challenge. Over the course of five months, we hosted workshops, mentorship sessions, and community building events to support hundreds of students. On average, optiMize students worked 160 hours on their projects just from October to February! In late February, all remaining teams presented their work and requested funding of up to $20,000 per project. That funding allows students to work full-time on their projects all summer as optiMize Summer Fellows. This year, we are able to fund 27 projects and 27 Summer Fellows with $212,000—selected by a consensus process that involves student leaders, alumni Fellows, mentors, and optiMize staff. We think these student projects illuminate possibilities for a more just and sustainable world. We hope they inspire you as much as they inspire us.



A magazine to address socioeconomic disparities in the fashion industry.


ROGUE is a publication that works to bring socioeconomic diversity and conscious consumerism to fashion. Kai has loved fashion since childhood, but has felt that as a middle-class, mixed-race person, she was never represented in the pages of high-fashion magazines. She feels that the fashion world seems disconnected from the real world—it doesn’t talk about current events or issues she is passionate about. She wants to be a more conscious consumer both economically and environmentally without feeling like it has to detract from her sense of style. ROGUE matters to her because she knows just how important it is to feel represented, and just how much value underrepresented voices hold.


Michigan Aquaponics

An organization using aquaponics to promote and educate individuals about sustainable food production.


Michigan Aquaponics brings together hydroponics and aquaculture in a symbiotic way to provide sustainable food with fewer waste products than either method on its own. The MAqua team believes aquaponics is the future of farming in urban settings, and that with high yields and little waste it is going to be the best method to provide food to city dwellers. They are working on a barrelponics system, or a small system able to be housed just about anywhere which provides small amounts of food to whoever owns it. This summer, they plan to house these barrelponics systems in various locations around campus, including in co-ops. They ultimately hope they can eventually feed the university, putting healthy, local, and fresh food in several dining halls. 



A coffee and conversation collective encouraging interpersonal connections on campus.


Atmos is about people meeting and interacting in unexpected moments in a day over a hot beverage (typically coffee!). The Atmos team hopes that these moments are encouraging and uplifting and remind people of the beauty of simply connecting with another person. They are all about genuine connections and getting to know other peoples’ stories. In the future, they plan to continue doing Atmos pop- ups around campus and expand into other spaces to build stronger connections and community. 



Underserved youth development and mentorship program that provides them with tools they need to succeed in school.


Goals4Soles is a nonprofit organization determined to help kids in the inner cities of Michigan by supplying them with quality everyday shoes, sports shoes, school supplies, and mentorship. They are focused on making sure kids from Detroit, Ypsilanti, Battle Creek, and Flint have proper and safe resources for their school life. This summer, they plan to make their first contribution back to the community. They will be supplying students from the Youth Impact Program, a mentoring program, with these donations. 



A tool that allows users to cut, select, and recompile parts of video content to avoid triggers to traumatic experiences.


RedyWatch aims to help people battle PTSD with the use of technology and conscious design. It is an online mental health management platform that crowd-sources the identification of potentially triggering content in movies. It creates customized filters to allow people to receive real-time trigger warnings that are specific to their condition while watching movies. Having seen the lasting consequences of traumatic events such as sexual assault or abuse, the RedyWatch team has come to understand that there are many enjoyments in life that become sources of stress to those afflicted by psychological triggers. They’ve also come to understand that the current support system for mental health is very limited. RedyWatch is taking a step in expanding that support system. 


Education First

A mentorship and college readiness program for high school students in the California Desert.


Education First seeks to tear down institutional barriers for first generation students by helping them navigate the educational systems in the US. They are focusing in a region in southern California where 60% of students are first generation high school students. Education First provides a mentorship and college readiness program for high school students in that region. This summer, they are planning to hold a one week academy that will get students excited and informed about college and are also working to create more resources for students online. 


Terry Lu Naturals

A natural hair product company that promotes positive self-image and healthy hair for black women and other people with curls.


Terry Lu Naturals is a natural hair product line geared toward women and men with wavy, kinky, and curly hair types. It helps tame curls and reduce frizz, all while keeping your hair healthy and moisturized with the best natural ingredients. Hunter is passionate about these hair products because she loves natural hair and wants others to embrace their natural beauty as well. In addition to this, she also wants to give back to her community with her hair care products. This summer, Hunter plans on further developing and testing her products as well as working on marketing for Terry Lu. 


Books for a Benefit

A student organization that flips unused spaces in homeless shelters into libraries.


Books for a Benefit is a library building initiative that takes unused spaces in homeless shelters or community centers and flips them into libraries. They do this by bringing in furniture, bookshelves, and books. For the thousands of students in Michigan that grow up homeless, books may be a luxury they cannot afford. By flipping these spaces, Books for a Benefit is able to provide access to these resources and build a community. They aim to build communities of lifelong learners, reading enthusiasts, and communities where literacy and education are made a central part in a person’s life. Madeline and Zahra are passionate about libraries, which they feel have empowered them to become better as students, people, and learners. 



A national web platform for people to find locations and hours of food pantries near them.


FoodFinder is a nonprofit organization that makes it easy to get accurate and trustworthy information on food pantries and similar food assistance programs. Their web and mobile app shows users’ current locations as well as all nearby free food providers. The information on each food provider includes items such as Street Address, Hours of Operation, and Contact Information, making sure that a food insecure child or family who uses FoodFinder knows exactly when and where to get the help they're looking for. Jack is passionate about FoodFinder because it addresses a need for an already difficult-to-see population. 



A digital platform for school counselors to keep track of students' mental health.


DeepBreaths is a mental health management platform that helps overworked and underfunded school therapists be more efficient and have a greater reach for students in need. This is important to Yara and Subhan because they feel mental health is a serious problem across schools and campuses that has affected so many people, including their loved ones, yet it remains stigmatized and under-prioritized. They want to change that. In a couple years, they hope that DeepBreaths will be used at several schools, increasing the efficiency of school therapists while making sure at-risk kids who wouldn't have been seen before are given the attention and care they need. 


Creatives of Color

A platform to connect minority artists, allowing them to collaborate and showcase their work.


Creatives of Color is a student organization and a social networking platform that is devoted to bridging a gap between artists of color and giving a platform to all creative fields on the campus. They are creating a community that draws people together who would otherwise not be engaged in constructive social activity, providing an experience for participants to learn technical and interpersonal skills important for collective organizing, and also increasing the scope of individuals’ social networks.This project has implications that range from intrapersonal to community-building to a bridge between creatives of color across the globe. 


Alternate Reality Initiative

A student organization exploring the advancing fields of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality.


The Alternate Reality Initiative was founded to educate and support students by fostering a community of future virtual, augmented, and mixed reality innovators. They host development workshops, discuss industry news, and connect students to the greater VR/AR/MR ecosystem. When Michael first arrived at the University of Michigan, he struggled to find the resources and a community of those passionate about alternative reality. Rather than wait for updated curriculum and opportunities, he and his team wanted to take the initiative to bring University of Michigan students to the forefront of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. 


Cowboys Paying It Forward

A mentorship platform for first generation college students coming from Western International High School in southwest Detroit.


Cowboys Paying it Forward is a mentorship program for incoming freshmen that come from Western International H.S. in Southwest Detroit. Mentees will be paired with an upperclassmen at the University of Michigan that also graduated from Western in order to help them adjust to the culture at the University and feel welcome. Ricardo hopes to promote inclusivity and create a community of leaders that are dedicated to bringing their skills back to Detroit. 



A program that randomly connects individuals in communities for coffee chats aiming to break down silos and barriers.


smallworld seeks to bring communities together by breaking down silos and encouraging a more free sharing of perspectives. Silos are experienced in almost every community because it is easier to connect to individuals we’re similar to, but these silos can lead to exclusion and discrimination. To combat this, smallworld arranges meetups between random members within a community. These facilitated meetups allow for conversations that strengthen the community and increase overall productivity. smallworld’s long term goal is to reduce polarization in the world and understand how humans that are different can live together in a thriving community. 


Barb N Jewels Cosmetics

An affordable makeup company for women with darker skin tones that are oftentimes not represented in the cosmetics industry.


Barb N Jewels Cosmetics is a cosmetics line that focuses on women of color embracing their natural beauty. The line will offer 40–50 shades of lightweight matte foundation. This cosmetics line works to address colorism and advocate for women of color who are underrepresented in the cosmetics market. Jazmine would also like to build the Jewels Mentoring Program for young adults in Metro Detroit area with her revenue. This issue is important to Jazmine since she has been affected by colorism as she grew up, leading to low self esteem at a young age. Jazmine found her confidence in makeup and embracing her natural beauty, and she wants to help other young girls feel equally confident in their own skin. 


Governing Bodies

A satirical merchandise company donating its proceeds to get women into elected offices.


Governing Bodies is a satirical merchandise company that aims to improve the representation of women in public office. They sell risqué merchandise that uses male bodybuilder bodies superimposed with politicians. It is a play on typical female objectification and is supposed to shock the audience and make them laugh. After learning about the double binds that women face while running for office, the Governing Bodies team decided to create this project that allows them to use their skills to help get more women in government. 



An organization working to put on a two-week professional development workshop for Syrian refugees.


[RE]vive is a project that aims to create and teach a workshop for college preparation and professional development skills to Syrian refugee students and teachers in Istanbul, Turkey. Most of their efforts are associated with ensuring the sustainability of their project by focusing on indigenous empowerment and representation, so they are not only working with students, but also teachers to be able to perpetuate the workshop. The [RE]vive team focuses on a specific population within the Syrian refugee crisis that oftentimes goes overlooked: the lost generation. This refers to Syrian children who, due to the conflict, have been out of school for anywhere between 2-7 years. These children, who have missed years of their schooling, oftentimes lack the necessary resources to seek higher education. 


Little D Soldiers

A merchandise brand using revenues to benefit communities in Detroit.


The Little Detroit Soldiers is a brand that is engaged in the design, development, marketing, and sales of apparel, accessories, and services. They seek to promote community development first starting in Detroit by hosting community wide events in various locations. These events include Spring Cleaning, backpack and school supplies giveaways, and homelessness kits. Their products are worn by people who take pride in helping their communities and love street wear! 



A college access platform to help high school students navigate the college application and scholarship search process.


NavNextSteps is an online platform that seeks to connect low-income students with technical and vocational school resources as well as scholarships. Through Grace’s own experience growing up in a low- income area, she knows the importance of believing a great education is attainable for anyone and wants to bring this knowledge to the community around her. This summer, NavNextSteps plans to finish developing their software. They will be creating a prototype to engage actual students to learn more about what information these students really need when it comes to the higher education search process. 


The Guild Poetry

An organization that organizes poetry workshops and showcases to promote youth literacy and empowerment in Detroit.


The Guild Poetry is a creative arts summer camp in Northwest Detroit for Detroit teens in the middle/high school age range. The focus is on creative writing and expression, as the young people get exposed to performance and creative arts workshopping while improving their reading skills and using their powers to lead their communities. The location of the program will be in Northwest Detroit and the duration will be either an intensive 1-2 weeks (Monday-Friday) or twice a week for 8-10 weeks throughout the summer. The young people will explore many forms of creative writing through exercises, guest speakers and helping each other. The program will culminate into a performance showcase by the students at the end. 


Brains, Beauty, and Benevolence

A student organization empowering women of color to grow personally and professionally through community service and mentorship.


Brains, Beauty, and Benevolence is a mentorship program with the goal of helping underrepresented high school students realize their potential and help them chase their educational goals by having a positive role model who is also underrepresented. This is important to the Brains, Beauty, and Benevolence team because they wish they had role models to encourage them when they were younger. They all value representation, especially for teenagers. 


Brazilian Zouk Dance Community

A Brazilian dance community that is inclusive and empowering to individuals on the autism spectrum and survivors of sexual trauma.


The Brazilian Zouk Dance Community is working on building a community centered around the inclusive dance form, Zouk. To cultivate this community, Jac is working to create more resources for dancers to grow their skills as well as fostering a culture where everyone feels accepted and connected with each other. Jac is passionate about Zouk because the dance and community has brought her a lot of happiness, and she wants to pass it on to those around her. 



A healthy, gluten-free, single serve banana bread company to increase accessibility of nutritious foods.


GoNanas is a banana bread company that believes that living a truly healthy lifestyle is all about balance, not sacrificing taste for nutrition. As college students, Annie and Morgan have found there is a lack of nutritious and delicious food and desert on-the-go options in the market, adding to the perceived difficulty of achieving a “healthy lifestyle” for the young, health-seeking consumer. Their mini loaves of various flavors make banana bread a healthful and versatile, on-the-go treat, so consumers can indulge your taste buds without having to sacrifice nutritional value in the process. Not only are their breads more affordable than traditional loaves, but they also encourage portion control as they are single size. 



An organization that hosts discussions across a range of political and social divides to promote a common understanding.


WeListen aims to create a space on campus where people who disagree can have productive conversations about politics, in person, offline, and without debate. WeListen hopes that their discussion sessions will foster understanding between groups that don’t often interact– liberals and conservatives, as well as students of different racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. Their sessions are built to help students understand the views and values behind the other side’s position, and more importantly, to humanize peers that they may disagree with. 


Live In Color

A student organization painting murals inside drab campus buildings to improve morale on campus.


Live in Color is a student org on campus aimed to add color and design to the many bland and uninviting walls around campus. They bring students together to paint murals in order to improve overall campus vibes and atmosphere. The Live in Color team sees that so many of their classes are in older university buildings which were designed a long time ago and look almost jail-like. It is important to them to help students meet each other and bring color into the hallway we spend our days traveling. 


Ready Get Resilient

A mental health program for high school students to develop resilience and coping strategies before entering college.


Ready Get Resilient aims to help high schoolers build resilience by providing information, coping tools, and implementation strategies to help them take on the challenges that arise during the transition to college. Penelope wants to help students be successful in their college career and believes that earlier intervention can both help destigmatize mental illness and empower students to seek help when and if they need it. She draws from her own mental health experience, and hopes that by sharing her story she can demonstrate the importance about speaking openly about this domain of health. 



An end-to-end upcycling platform to connect millions of dollars of unused items with non-profits that need materials.


ValCycle is an end-to-end platform connecting overstocked merchants to community organizations which can repurpose their inventory. While merchants traditionally liquidate and waste their excess inventory, Valcycle’s platform reduces product waste and empowers community organizations. They assist community organizations in fundraising and accessing useful merchandise. ValCycle creates value in two ways: generating resources for social benefit program and reducing environmental waste. 

AJ Estes, Anabel Flores, Annie Slabotsky, Ayah Kutmah, Brooke Bacigal, Carlo Kemp, Drew Metcalf, Dylan Plummer, Eljonna Williams, Grace Wang, Hunter Phelps, Jac Bowman, Jack Griffin, Jazmine Johnson, Joe Lacy, Justin Gordon, Kai Mason, Madeline Helland, Morgan Lerner (not pictured), Navanas Chetsandtikhun, Olivia Helland, Penelope Farris, Ricardo Hernandez, Ruby Sims, Subhan Chaudry, Xiao Bin Pan, Yara El-Tawil

AJ Estes, Anabel Flores, Annie Slabotsky, Ayah Kutmah, Brooke Bacigal, Carlo Kemp, Drew Metcalf, Dylan Plummer, Eljonna Williams, Grace Wang, Hunter Phelps, Jac Bowman, Jack Griffin, Jazmine Johnson, Joe Lacy, Justin Gordon, Kai Mason, Madeline Helland, Morgan Lerner (not pictured), Navanas Chetsandtikhun, Olivia Helland, Penelope Farris, Ricardo Hernandez, Ruby Sims, Subhan Chaudry, Xiao Bin Pan, Yara El-Tawil

Why not you?

Out of 210 project submissions, we funded these 27 incredible teams. But still, too many deserving projects were left unfunded. Next year, our goal is to fund 40 teams. Can you help us make it happen?